Big dams create big conflict

Maneri Bhali dam- Source:Peoples Science Institute
Maneri Bhali dam- Source:Peoples Science Institute

Northeast India has been in turmoil over the last two decades or so because of unbridled hydropower development in the region. This article is an effort to understand the extent of hydropower development in the region, the multi-faceted and multi layered conflicts unleashed by this development and also explore ways of engaging with them. It is organised around three broad sections:

  • A brief profile of the region
  • A few typical case studies of hydropower projects
  • Possible ways of engaging with the conflicts

Section One: The Northeast
This is a part of the eastern Himalayas known for its richness in water resources, biodiversity and ethnic and cultural diversity. About 60% of the total geographical area is covered by forests. Most of the region has low population density and is largely inhabited by small ethnic communities. The region is drained by two large river systems – the Brahmaputra and the Barak (Meghna).

Section Two: Hydropower projects and conflicts
More than 168 hydropower projects are planned in the region. These require greater infrastructure developments, which leads to deforestation and disruption of forest ecosystems. There is widespread concern over the observed and probable social and environmental impacts of these hydropower projects.

Various sources of dam-related conflicts: downstream impacts, ecological impacts, culture, flooding, loss of livelihood, displacement and impact assessments.

The indigenous people at the dam sites who depend largely on forests and rivers for their livelihoods are threatened. They aren't involved in decision making processes that result in the utilisation of these natural resources. Protests against the detrimental downstream impacts of large dams have assumed the proportions of a mass movement.

The attached paper talks of a few dams to illustrate the various forms that these conflicts can take. The map below lists these dams. Clicking on each marker will provide more information about the dam and also briefly describe the conflicts around it. You can also select the 'view full screen' mode to view the map in greater detail. 

Section Three: Possible way ahead

Water conflicts are symptoms of larger issues in water resources governance. Implicit in these conflicts is a demand for change, first in the ways we think about water and second, in the ways we manage it.

Using statistics and government reports, the paper proves that India's surge of hydropower development is unprecedented in the history of the country.  India’s plan to expand its power generation potential – both hydropower and thermal power – is to keep up its high growth trajectory through industrialisation and urbanisation.  Thus, the main driver of such large scale hydropower generation in the Northeast is arguably not the development of the region as such, but the export of hydropower to the rest of India to fuel its high growth economy.

Where do we go from here?

  • The first and the most important thing to do is to put a stop to all project-related activities in whatever stage they are. A comprehensive review of all projects must be carried out, taking into account the various objections raised by academics, activists and affected people, and made available in the public domain.
  • It is high time that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process is streamlined and restructured in a more transparent, democratic, participatory, scientific and objective manner.
  • Social Impact Assessments (SIAs) are as important as EIAs especially in a sensitive region like the Northeast known for its ethnic diversity and socio-culturally vulnerable communities.
  • India also needs to rethink its high growth developmental pathway, which is putting enormous stress on its natural resources. 

In the age of climate change, the need and wisdom of switching over to a developmental pathway with a low energy and water footprint cannot be emphasised enough.